Monday, May 05, 2014

Autopoint Interview

Autopoint were a significant name in the American mechanical pencil industry throughout the middle part of the 20th century, and a particular strength of the company was corporate gifts and advertising pencils. Like many writing instrument companies of the time they went through a succession of corporate owners, eventually ending up in the Gillette / Papermate stable. However around 1980 Papermate divested the Autopoint name and machinery, selling to a group of businessmen, and Autopoint again became an independent entity.

Recently I was contacted by Jason Bender, the President and owner of Autopoint Inc. He offered to send me a few samples, and I expressed an interest in learning more about the current Autopoint. So here’s a Q&A with Jason.

1.    Hello Jason. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about your company. Perhaps you can start by telling us a little about yourself, and how and why you came to own Autopoint?
I am married with two little boys and a dog that runs the house. I love spending time with my family and enjoying life as much as possible. I currently have little life outside of work and family. We purchased Autopoint in January of this year and have been consumed turning it around, and getting the Autopoint brand back out to people.

I am a drafter by trade; my class of draftsmen were the last class to take a hand drafting class and I fell in love with it. I had to relent to using various CAD programs if I wanted a job but I still love the hands on element as well as the vision it took to be able to make something look accurate. I moved from drafting into estimation and sales for a commercial construction company. After years of doing that I decided that I wanted to be a business owner.

My wife and I set out with a very wide net of businesses that we would be interested in and initially pencils had nothing to do with it. We finally were about to give up on our idea when right in my back yard there was a mechanical pencil company for sale. I almost instantly was hooked. I noticed that people who use pencils every day are fanatical about their specific pencil. Myself I was a Pentel Graph 1000 user, I bought my first one in college and have had a handful since. Autopoint has a quality product that has been around for a long time, plus the brand recognition is fairly high. Once I started looking at Autopoint I realized that deep down I was a pencil nut. After stepping back a few times and making sure that this was really the right decision, my heart and mind were all in and my wife was on board. I am convinced the brand has staying power and hope our users feel the same way.

2.    I believe the Autopoint product range was drastically reduced and redesigned in the 1970’s under Gillette/Papermate ownership. Is it this product range and machinery that is still the basis of the current range?
Gillette indeed drastically cut the product line down in the 1970’s. The core products are the same as they were when Gillette redesigned the Twinpoint and All American. Before Gillette sold the business to the previous owner they sold off a majority of the assets to make the pencils. When we were cleaning up the shop and moving some things around we found hundreds of documents dating back to the founding of the company in the 1920’s. I have all of the blueprints to the old machines and products. Maybe one day we can bring some of that stuff back.

3.    Tell us a little about Autopoint as a company today.
Autopoint is located in Janesville Wisconsin USA. We currently have nine employees, six in the shop and three (two full time and one part time) in the office. All of us in the office step out to the shop to help build pencils as needed. We ship approximately 60 orders per day. This year I expect to have right around One million dollars (USD) in sales, our current production volume is approximately 1,500 pencils per day; we have room to grow.

4.    How do Autopoint products make it to market these days?
Autopoint over the last few years has relied on ad specialty, online sales, and a few retail locations. All of our current retail locations are located internationally. Since I have purchased the company I have pushed hard to get us back into the retail market. I am working with several buying groups and a few local stores to get our pencils in front of a wider market.

5.    Do you export outside of the USA?
Yes we have customers all over the world. There are stationary shops in London, Taiwan, and South Korea that sell a lot of our pencils. We sell products to the Saudi Arabian Air Force and the Kuwaiti Navy, as well as my government. We sell to individual customers in Africa, Australia, Canada, all European countries, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Middle East, and Mexico.  I would love to expand that presence.

6.    What is your goal with Autopoint?
I do see a significant increase in sales as we move back into distribution. We currently have zero presence in major retail stores and I intend to change that starting locally at first. If a big box store came to us tomorrow and said I want to carry your pencils I would have to turn them away, we could not supply a national chain.

I want to expand the Autopoint line up, I have been playing with the idea of making a metal pencil. A heavier pencil feels more stable. I also want to add a line of pens made in the United States. A lot of the products that comes from the Asian market has poor quality and reliability issues. The manufacturing base here specifically in the Midwest is some of the best in the world.

7.    In producing your mechanical pencils, how much is carried out in-house as opposed to sub-contracted? For example, do you mould your own plastic barrels, press the metal components, etc or is the factory more of an assembly operation?
Our barrels and tips are molded about 45 minutes drive from our factory; metal parts come from the east coast. The device that propels the lead are assembled and pressed into the tips by machines in our plant, the final assembly is done by hand, this puts the quality control in the hands of the assembler, and they take ownership of the build and make sure that what gets sent out is a quality product.

One step in the process - the Tip Assembly Machine (TAM), which assembles the assembled shank into the tip cone and presses the Grip-Tite tip into the tip cone.
8.    Your pencils come in a variety of lead sizes; I would be interested in the percentage breakdown of sales by lead size.
This is an interesting question and varies by region of the world. North America and Europe both have tendencies to write heavier and favour the thicker leads, Asia writes far more precise and delicate and like the thinner leads. 90% of the pencils exported to the Asian market is 0.5mm, 1.1mm and 0.9mm are split evenly there. In the North American markets 0.9mm is the top seller, roughly 80%. 1.1mm is the next best seller at approximately 15%. 0.7mm gets a little less than 5% with 0.5mm making up less than 1% of our sales in North America. Europe is pretty close to the same as North America with more sales going to 1.1mm.

9.    Are your leads manufactured in the USA or imported?
The lead that we use is imported. We used to purchase our lead from the United States but the plant closed years ago. Autopoint has tried several lead makers but many of them could not hold the tolerances that we need as our Grip-Tite system does not have the flexibility of a clutch type mechanical pencil. It is also the key component to having a system that my five year old son struggles to break the lead.

You mention your leads need a tight tolerance, and your pencil system increasing resistance to lead breakage. Could you explain a little about the Grip-Tite system?
Our  Grip-Tite system is fairly simple, most mechanical pencils have a clutch that holds the lead and propels it forward. This clutch sits internally a fair distance back and is what holds the lead. The tip on a clutch type pencil supports the lead and if applying to much pressure acts as a pressure point on the lead. Grip-Tite holds the lead at the tip taking away the pressure point, we machine our tips to allow the lead to rub ever so slightly through the tip. This grips the lead to keep it from falling out. The tip has a notch in it to allow for minor expansion and as the writer applies pressure the lead pushes back against the plunger and actually causes the tip to contract down upon the lead.

Putting aside the difference in the length of leads, does this mean that common brands of lead refills will not work with Autopoint pencils? 
Other leads could work, we just do not guarantee that they will. We have had customers call and complain that the pencil broke because it will not hold the leads, they fall half way or completely out. Turns out they used up all the lead supplied with the pencil and bought a competitors lead. We require our lead to have a higher tolerance for this reason.
Ahhh, old time blog readers know all about various run-ins with lead diameter tolerances

Thanks very much Jason. I wish you every success with Autopoint, and I’m sure all readers do too.
For more information on Autopoint check out the Wikipedia page and Bob Bolins Resources. Also here on this blog, some discussion of the Autopoint 1948 Catalogue:
Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

PS – Coming soon to a blog near you, a review of an Autopoint pencil.